SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY JULY 29, 2018
Today we begin a five week reading of the sixth chapter of the gospel of John. It is called the “Bread of Life discourse” and is really John’s teaching on the eucharist. John does not describe the institution of the eucharist in his description of the Last Supper so this is important for him. Actually this story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story described in all four gospels. And Matthew and Mark have it twice with some variations. So it appears six times. Some have tried to reduce the story to a miracle of sharing. Everyone had brought out the food they had been hoarding. But this is a rationalist reduction of something deeper. The food comes from a boy offering a few loaves and fishes.
As I was pondering the significance of this gospel, I thought of our own Sunday Eucharistic celebration. I could imagine where most of you sit every Sunday. Some are always back here on either side, others on the east end. That also makes it easy to notice when you are missing and some of the monks will mention at supper that Alphonse and Hilda were not here today. Sometimes one of the group will know you are away or guess where you might be. I suppose you might be pleased to know that you are missed!
Now this is significant. The Sunday eucharist is the gathering of a community to be in communion with the Christ and his body, the church, that is with each other. We come to be nourished, to be uplifted, to be challenged, but also to support one another. This does not mean that new members, visitors, strangers don’t fit in. On the contrary, a eucharistic community must not be a closed or exclusive one but always open to others. It is a good thing to have smaller like-minded groups where we meet to share our spiritual journey, discuss a book, feel safe to be vulnerable about our lives. But we also need the larger community that includes people with whom we might not agree or share a friendship.
The sign of peace we exchange before communion means we accept those right beside us no matter whether we know them or not. We are all one in Christ and this should remind us that we are one with all we meet each day, friend or stranger.
When I am away from the monastery, I often attend Mass at a local parish. When I am traveling, even in a foreign country, I attend Mass locally. I am united with a worldwide community of disciples of Christ. I don’t go to be entertained. I go to be one with Christ and his body. They can, in fact, be a motley group of people, perhaps very conservative or liberal. The music might be strident and no one sings.
The homily might be uninspiring, especially to a critical person as myself. But it is still the Eucharist, Christ present to all of us, regardless of who we are. It is a feast of God’s love for all of us.
The eucharist is our weekly reminder of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It is the pattern of our Christian lives. What we hear in today’s gospel, as well as all the accounts of the eucharist is an action, a series of actions. Jesus takes; he blesses (which really means to give thanks); he breaks or pours out; he gives. Take – bless – break – give. This is what our lives are supposed to be about and we need Christ’s presence, his grace, his life, to be faithful to this pattern. In a ritual form of a meal that we share together, we all perform these four actions.
TAKE – take your life in your hands. You are saying a radical “yes” to the physical universe itself and the bloody suffering of your own life and all the world. You accept who you are.
BLESS – you then thank God (eucharisteo in Greek) who is the origin of all life and who allows and uses the death that life includes. You are making a choice for gratitude, abundance and appreciation for Another, which has the power to radically dis-center you. Your life and death are pure gift and must be given away in trust.
BREAK – you choose to break your life and death wide open. You let your life be broken, used up. In handing over the small self, you find your True Self in God. “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains only a grain of wheat.”
GIVE - You must then chew on this mystery for all the rest of your days. We do more than think discuss, or even believe. We must eat the truth more than understand it.
To live in this way is a challenge and we keep celebrating the eucharist in order to try to live this way. We are faithful to the community gathering.
To keep our faith alive in this mystery, we must be serious about its place in our lives. Fasting before Mass is still a good preparation for recognizing our hunger for Christ (but not if you are going to pass out). Silence and prayer before Mass can help us center on what we are about to do. Getting past routine and boredom and living in faith require an active participation in the eucharist and not a passive spectator role. Seeing the eucharist as a call to feed others is important too. Our monthly collection of food is not a just a good thing to do. It is very much part of the eucharist itself.
Take time to read the gospels of these five weeks as a deepening of your own eucharistic piety. May we heed the words of Saint Augustine that we are what we eat and drink. We eat and drink of the eucharist to be eucharist ourselves.
Fr. Timothy J. Joyce, OSB, STL